by John H Marsh

AT Walvis Bay and down at Combined Headquarters at Cape Town the position of the castaways was causing grave concern. The news of the wreck of the tug and the perilous situation of its crew, followed by the announcement that the bomber was bogged and that her crew, too, would now have to be rescued, presented the authorities with new problems.
Walvis Bay was still without a suitable aircraft which could take the place of the bogged Ventura and take supplies to the two shipwrecked parties. It so happened, however, that on the afternoon following the bogging of the Ventura, Captain J. S. Dalgleish, the Director of the South African Naval Forces, and Major A. J. Smit, the General Staff Officer (II) at Combined Headquarters, arrived at Walvis Bay from Cape Town in an Anson ferry plane. Orders were at once given to prepare the Anson for a mercy flight next day with supplies for the stranded people.
The first difficulty to overcome was the fact that the Anson's range was insufficient to allow her to make the round trip to the liner and back to Walvis Bay without refuelling. An alternative route was worked out, however. By flying east for 180 miles she could make Windhoek and refuel there. A similar hop almost due north would bring her to Outjo, the railhead. There was an emergency landing ground at a place in the desert called Ohopoho, roughly another 200 miles north-west, on the fringe of the Kaokoveld. This had been prepared for the use, if necessary, of the planes flying between Windhoek and Angola. There was a petrol dump there from which the Anson would be able to refuel. It was only another 130 miles to the wreck of the liner and the plane should have enough fuel to visit both wrecks and get safely back to Ohopoho. Then she could follow the same route home or make direct for Walvis Bay. The course was a round-about one of some 700 miles from Walvis Bay to the liner, against only 370 miles if the plane could have flown direct.

Major Smit and the Anson's crew worked until far into the night, laying down the course the plane should follow. They were handicapped by the usual thing-lack of proper maps. Such maps as were available lacked detail or were unreliable. The position of Ohopoho was the principal cause of worry. If they could be certain that the plane would find Ohopoho she could fly direct from Walvis Bay to the wrecks, drop her supplies, and go on to Ohopoho and from there in one hop back to Walvis Bay. But Ohopoho was not marked on the majority of maps, and the terrain presented no distinguishing features-just sand and more sand-so that correct navigation would be very difficult. There was every chance that she would fail to find the stretch of level sand that was Ohopoho, and then she would have insufficient petrol to reach the next airfield. The last thing anyone wanted to risk at the moment was having another marooned crew to rescue from the desert.
The route that was finally chosen would allow the Anson to turn back and reach Outjo safely if she failed to find Ohopoho. While the pilot and his crew were memorising as well as they could the features of the country they were to fly over on the morrow, mechanics were stripping the plane of all non-essential equipment and loading her with the- maximum amount of fuel, water, and supplies. The latter were wrapped in large quantities of blankets.
For two days now, smce the bogged Ventura's radio had failed, no news had reached the outside world of what was happening at either of the wrecks. It was known, however, that the Nerine must be nearing the end of her endurance, and another S.A.N.F. minesweeper, H.M.S.A.S. Natalia (Sub-Lieutenant J. C. Walters), which was lying in Walvis Bay, was prepared to relieve her. She took aboard all the fuel and water she could carry, in addition to extra provisions, blankets and rafts. Lieutenant-Commander Finlayson, the South African naval officer in charge at Walvis Bay, decided to go in the Natalia to make a personal survey of the position. He brought aboard with him two dozen carrier pigeons. He knew that the Natalia's radio equipment had no greater range than that of the sweeper she was to relieve. Experience in the Great War in command of drifters in the North Sea had taught him the value of carrier pigeons when other means of communication were unreliable or non-existent. He decided therefore to try and bridge the gap in communications that the ship's radio could not, by this means. It was to be the first time pigeons were to help in rescue operations on the South African coast.

The Natalia put to sea late in the afternoon of December 4. She was scheduled to reach the wrecked liner on the morning of December 6.
Early on December 5, as soon as it was light, the Anson took off on her hazardous flight. She was so heavily loaded that it was only with difficulty that she got into the air. Her pilot had instructions, after completing his mission at the wrecks, to search for the motor convoy that had set off from Windhoek three days earlier, and, if he found it, to drop a message giving the convoy directions on how to reach the wrecks.
The Anson was already near Outjo when news reached Walvis Bay that a second Ventura bomber had left Darling, near Cape Town, at daylight, and would reach Walvis Bay at lunch time to pick up supplies for the shipwrecked parties. In view of this information a message was radioed to the Anson recalling her. She landed at Walvis Bay during the afternoon.
While the authorities at Walvis Bay were awaiting the arrival of the Ventura, a wireless message was received from the liner's captain on board the Nerine, which was now within radio range. He asked that apart from food and water, tents and blankets should be dropped to the survivors. He reported that they were now suffering from exposure and asked whether there was not some possibility of sending an overland expedition by motor lorry from the settlement at Cape Cross, to rescue them.
Cape Cross is about 350 miles south of where the wrecked liner was lying. The journey along the beach and sand dunes by motor vehides, even had they been available, was an impossibility. There were no roads or even tracks leading northward. The suggestion, therefore, could not be considered.

But attention was given to the request for blankets and tents. These were got ready for the arrival of the Ventura. It landed at Rooikop aerodrome on schedule, after a fast trip up the coast. It was piloted by Major J. N. Robbs, D.F.C., with Lieutenant Arie Brink as navigator, and Corporal Charles Russell as radio operator. Like Naude's aircraft, it was a unit of No.23 Bomber Squadron.
Only one parachute water container, holding 20 gallons, was available for the plane. A number of motor car inner tubes were obtained, and into these fresh water was pumped. The lack of supply parachutes was a great handicap. As the next best thing the flare chute in the bomber's floor was adapted to enable the tins of canned fruit, condensed milk, bully beef, biscuits, and other small packages of supplies, to be dropped through it. Large quantities of blankets were taken aboard, and also one large bell tent with a centre pole in sections, which was intended for the women and children. There was no space for anything more, and when the bomber took to the air about 2.30 in the afternoon she looked like a flying bazaar within. Major Smit had joined her as observer.
In just under two hours the plane was over the wreck of the tug. The position there did not seem to have changed much, except that there were now six men on the beach, together with the lifeboat and what looked like the broken hull of another small boat. There were still about a dozen men on the tug's upperworks. From the masthead two flags fluttered. They formed the international distress signal, "N.C."
There had in fact been little change since the tragedy of the previous day. The men on the wreck had spent another sleepless and uncomfortable night. At daybreak the weather had moderated somewhat and the men on the beach had tried to launch the lifeboat. It was too heavy for them to move down to the water, however, and they had to abandon their attempts until the tide began to rise. Meanwhile the men on the wreck had found another pistol rocket. Waiting until the wind seemed favourable, they fired it with a line attached, towards the beach. Like its predecessors, it fell short. After a rest of an hour the men ashore made another effort to launch the lifeboat. Again they were unsuccessful. As ill-luck would have it, it was only at low tide, when other conditions were favourable, that the surf was quiet enough to offer a possibility of the lifeboat reaching the wreck in safety. But the boat had been thrown so high up on the beach that without human hands to carry it, only high tide would refloat it. The surf was then always too heavy to risk the passage to the tug.

The men did try again just before high water, and again on the top of the tide. They got the boat afloat but they could not control it. Each breaker picked it up and hurled it back on the beach. At last they had to give up, exhausted.
Most of the men on the wreck and on the beach were in despair when the aircraft was sighted. It circled around while they waved excitedly. Some of the men on the beach made appealing signs to the plane to land on the sand. The airmen saw their pathetic signs but they knew it would be foolhardy to make the attempt. Instead they dropped some of the food to the men on the beach, and also some of the tubes containing water. The tubes burst on impact, however, and all the water was lost. They also dropped a message informing the beach party that help was on the way, and adjuring them to keep cheerful. This message was signalled from the beach to the tug and helped to buck up the spirits of the men still marooned on her. On sighting the plane they had prepared and hoisted another signal, asking that a rocket apparatus might be dropped on the beach. When the plane headed north with a farewell dip of its wings the men on the wreck were more optimistic of eventual rescue. By now they were suffering severe pangs of thirst, but they were cheered by indications that the surf and swell were subsiding. A moderate to fresh southerly wind was blowing, and seas were still breaking over their vessel, which continued to bump and groan under their blows.
Not long after leaving the tug the Ventura reached the wreck of the liner. As on the previous occasion, the people below showed great excitement when the plane flew low over their heads. She dropped her supplies from a greater height than the first bomber had done. The 20-gallon water container, with its parachute attached, was the first to be released through the bomb doors. Once again Fate stepped in. The parachute did not open, and the con- tainer was split from end to end on the beach. The precious water soaked into the sand.
The same thing happened to the motor tubes. Each one burst on striking the ground, and spilled its contents into the sand. Nor did the provisions fare much better. One after the other the tins and packages split open as they hit the ground. A few landed intact, and some of the contents of others were salved, but by far the majority were a total loss.

The tent and the blankets, however, reached the ground safely. They were to prove a boon indeed to the castaways. That evening some of the men pitched the tent, and by nightfall all the women and the children were safely ensconced within, with the knowledge that the blankets dropped from the sky would ensure their spending their first night in comparative warmth. There is no doubt that the protection that the tent provided from the driving sand was responsible, with the care and skill of Dr. Labib, for saving the eye- sight of the youngest member of the party.
After dropping its supplies the plane flew over its consort so that those on board could examine its position and report on the possibility of its being salved. Even from the air they could see that it was hopelessly bogged and that it would be impossible to move it without the aid of proper equipment which would have to be brought overland.
Naude and his crew had returned to their plane and had checked over the messages they had written in the sand. With a large white flag they signalled from the fuselage to attract the attention of the circling aircraft. The latter signalled with her Aldis lamp that she had seen the messages and would report.
After leaving the castaways Major Robbs flew inland to search for the overland rescue expedition. Despite an exhaustive survey he was unable to find a trace of it, and eventually he was compelled by the approach of darkness to abandon the search and go back to Walvis Bay.
Naude and his crew, after spending one night in the survivor's camp, had decided to return to their aircraft and make their temporary home there. They would be able to subsist for several days more on the emergency rations they had in the plane, and would thus avoid draining the supplies of the shipwrecked party. They also still clung to the hope that they would be able to dig their plane out of the sand again.
They divided up their rations as follows : -
Breakfast: One cup of water, three biscuits, and a small piece of Nestles cheese each;
Lunch: A cup of water, half a tin of bully beef, and three biscsuts each;
Supper: A cup of water, three biscuits, and a piece of chocolate each.

During the day they sucked glucose sweets. They would have preferred to draw less upon their water supply, but the bully beef, biscsuts and chocolate made them so thirsty that even with three cups of water a day their throats seemed always to be parched.
The wind had moderated somewhat but was still blowing too strongly for the airmen to do anything towards digging their plane out. They made themselves as comfortable as they could in the aircraft and slept more soundly that night.
The people on the beach awoke next morning to see a ship approaching. It was the Natalia. She signalled that she was going to drop rafts and that they should look out for them. Then she steamed some distance down the coast and released a raft on which were lashed cases of food, drums of water, and a large tarpaulin. Drums of fresh water with enough buoyancy to float were also dropped overboard. The current was kinder to these than it had been to those of the Nerine, and although they came ashore well beyond the camp, they were not too far for some of the castaways who were still fairly fit, to reach them. The arrival of the food supplies relieved anxiety for the present on that score. Water, how- ever, still had to be rationed to about half a cup at a time. To get a five-gallon tin of water entailed a walk of six miles or more along the beach, and the men who made the journey to the heavy drums on the rafts always returned pretty well exhausted. And five gallons of water did not go far among more than 60 people. There was, of course, no question of anyone washing or shaving with fresh water. Even to wash in salt water entailed a walk of more than a quarter- of-a-mile over the sand. The heat, lack of protection from the sun, and the unpleasant wind, combined with the listlessness resulting from an inadequate and unwholesome diet, effectively dissuaded most of the castaways from making that journey more often than could be avoided. In consequence some of them went for days without a wash, and the men did not attempt to shave. They now looked unkempt, with a week's growth of beard.
Immediately he reached the wreck Finlayson had released two pigeons with messages for Walvis Bay announcing the Natalia's arrival. During the ship's subsequent operations he released several more pairs. They were always released in pairs, and the messages were duplicated, in the hope that if one failed to get home, the other might. The flight was a test for any bird. As the bird flies, the distance from the wreck to Walvis Bay was 370 miles, and it was over virtual desert with only one or two waterholes in the beds of dried-up rivers. The terrain was unfamiliar to the pigeons. To add to the difficulties of their flight, they had to contend with an almost perpetual south-westerly wind, which was practkally a head wind. Yet, of the dozen or so birds that were released, half got through with their messages. They averaged about ten hours each, or 40 miles an hour, for their flights.

The inforrnation they brought to the authorities at Walvis Bay of the conditions at the wreck, proved invaluable to the latter in making their plans for further rescue attempts.
After dropping her supplies, the Natalia steamed further south to seek a sheltered spot where a landing party might get ashore. Finlayson decided to investigate Fria Cove for himself. Like Van Rensburg before him, he came to the conclusion that there was insufficient shelter there to risk the passage to the beach. While he was still looking for a suitable place trouble developed in the Natalia's stokehold. The chief engineer reported that a serious leak had started in the boiler tubing and that the ship could not carry on without immediate repairs. Anchor was therefore dropped in Fria Cove and the engineers set to work. Meanwhile from the deck a careful watch was kept upon the beach to see whether any change in the tide or the wind might make a landing possible. During the six hours that the minesweeper remained at anchor, however, the wind continued to blow fairly strongly from the south-west and to bring with it a moderate swell, which caused the surf to break heavily all along the coast.
While the minesweeper lay at anchor, about the middle of the afternoon, Major Robbs flew over on his second trip from Walvis Bay in the Ventura. The Natalia tried to attract the plane's attention - by flash signals and by radio, in order to report on the situation, but she failed. The plane flew on and dropped more supplies to the beach party. She came lower this time to drop her water in motor tubes, but as on the previous day they all burst open on striking the ground. Robbs then flew off to continue his search for the missing overland convoy. Once more he was unsuccessful. He returned to Walvis Bay late in the evening.
After several hours' work the chief engineer of the Natalia announced that it was impossible to effect the necessary repairs at sea, and that there were also only four tons of fresh water left in the tanks, which were insufficient for the boiler's requirements for the voyage back to Walvis Bay. Walters, the commanding officer, in consultation with Finlayson, decided that there was no alternative but to return at once to Walvis Bay. The engineers said they would improvise down below and run on two fires only, using salt water in the boiler.

Shortly after six o'clock the engineers reported that they were ready to get the engines going again, and the minesweeper hoisted her anchor. She steamed back towards the camp, dropping another drum with 30 gallons of fresh water on the way. She anchored off the wreck and signalled to the beach party informing them that owing to engine trouble she was unfortunately forced to return to port, but that another vessel would be sent to stand by. She asked if there was anything they would like sent to them by air.
The shipwrecked party signalled back that their chief wants were water and more shelter. They added a postscript that Annabel and her mother no doubt had inspired: "Send face creams."
The Natalia's last view of the castaways before she steamed away was of three young men in naval uniform signalling from the beach; about 15 men dragging the tarpaulin that she had floated ashore on the raft earlier in the day, down the coast; and a small crowd at the water's edge around what appeared to be an aircraft dinghy.
The dinghy belonged to the bogged Ventura. Earlier in the day a few of the shipwrecked crew had arrived at the plane and asked the airmen for the loan of their dinghy. Their idea was to try and reach the wreck with its aid, and bring back supplies. The airmen willingly lent it, and helped them carry it the two miles to the beach. It weighed 160 lbs. and it was no easy job to get it to the water. When it was finally set down the airmen inflated it from the compressed air bottle. Before it could be launched, however, the chief officer sent orders that no attempt was to-be made to reach the wreck through that surf. The dinghy was therefore deflated and left on the beach to await a more favourable opportunity.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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